Sunday, October 15, 2017

“Wonder Wheel”– Movie Review


On the Closing Night of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of Woody Allen’s new drama, “Wonder Wheel”, starring Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake. 


When a couple’s world is disrupted by the return of his estranged daughter, can they protect her once they learn her life is in danger? 


As a World War II veteran, Mickey (Timberlake) now finds himself living quite the life.  It’s the 1950’s and he works summers as a lifeguard on the beach of Coney Island while trying to earn his Masters Degree at New York University, aspiring to one day be a great writer.  But on the path to that goal, he takes a few detours – one of which being Ginny (Winslet), an unhappily married woman with whom he’s been having an affair.  While Ginny may be grateful to Humpty (Jim Belushi) for marrying her after her ex-husband left her to take care their son, the ugly truth is, she’s not really in love with him.  Honestly, maybe she never was.

Ginny works as a waitress at a restaurant on the Coney Island boardwalk while Humpty operates the carousel on the same boardwalk.  Together, they make a meager living and struggle to get by from one week to another.  It is no puzzle then that neither one of them are at all pleased when Carolina (Juno Temple) arrives at their front door one fine day.  Carolina is Humpty’s adult daughter from a previous marriage; for quite some time now, they have been estranged because she wound up marrying a gangster against Humpty’s wishes and advice.  The last thing this young woman wanted to do at this point is to ask her father for help, but that’s exactly what made her walk back into his life.

While living as a gangster’s spouse initially seemed exciting, the glamor has since worn off.  When her husband got in trouble with the law, Carolina saved herself from jail by sharing with the FBI much of what she knew.  But that’s only endangered her further because the men from her husband’s gang now want to murder her before she spills yet more beans.  Against Ginny’s wishes, Humpty allows Carolina to hide out with them; Carolina inevitably winds up meeting Mickey and they start dating, although she does not know about Ginny having her own fling with him.  Once Ginny discovers that Carolina and Mickey are dating, she is overwhelmed with jealousy.  It doesn’t take long for the gangsters to locate Carolina – but once Ginny learns that Carolina’s life is in peril, will she try to save her life or will her jealousy get the best of her?   


“Wonder Wheel” is a beautiful movie to look at, but it may be less pleasant to watch.  Yes, on the surface, this may sound contradictory if not confusing, but nonetheless accurate.  While Woody Allen takes a credit as writer and director of this film, make no mistake about it – this largely belongs to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who worked with Allen on his previous motion picture “Café Society” as well as his next one, currently in production and as yet untitled.  In “Wonder Wheel”, Storaro has created a masterpiece that is award-worthy; it is more his picture than Allen’s due to its sheer visual beauty. 

It is painful to admit, but creatively speaking, Woody Allen has been drilling a dry hole anxiously awaiting his next gusher; this has been ongoing for quite some time now.  At this point, he might be better off focusing on being a playwright, especially since much of “Wonder Wheel” feels that it was conceived as such; a great deal of the dramatic action takes place statically, on the set of the couple’s apartment.  Not only that, but Allen’s obsessions with great playwrights like Tennessee Williams (especially “Streetcar Named Desire”) and Eugene O'Neill (most notably, “The Iceman Cometh”) are excruciatingly blatant. 

The above plaudits for Storaro are in no way meant to trivialize the performances.  Winslet is excellent and there is talk that she may receive award nominations for her portrayal of Ginny.  Belushi is also quite good but Timberlake is not believable in this role – perhaps he agreed, based on the stiff manner in which he delivered his lines.  Of special mention, however, is Juno Temple; her performance in “One Percent More Humid” made her someone worth watching and Carolina may prove to be her breakout role.  But the masterful way in which Storaro treats things which we normally take for granted such as light, shadows and rain are truly stunning.

Wonder Wheel (2017) on IMDb

“Ismael’s Ghosts”– Movie Review


On the final weekend of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended a screening of the new drama, “Ismael’s Ghosts” directed by Arnaud Desplechin and starring Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg. 


When a filmmaker is visited by the wife he believed dead, how will this impact both his work and his relationship with his girlfriend?


Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) is working furiously to complete his screenplay but is dogged by his former father-in-law Henri (László Szabó), who’s still obsessing over his daughter Carlotta.  She was married to Ismael but suddenly disappeared; when they never heard from her and the police failed to recover a body, Ismael and Henri had no choice but to have a court declare her as legally dead after a period of years.  While Ismael has made an attempt to move on with his life with Sylvia (Gainsbourg), his girlfriend of the past couple of years, Henri is having much more difficulty doing so.

While at Ismael’s beach house, Sylvia is enjoying the idyllic serenity while Ismael largely spends his time indoors working.  One day, Sylvia is approached by a woman (Cotillard) who claims to be Carlotta, Ismael’s wife.  Startled, Sylvia seems convinced, so she takes the woman to see Ismael, who is similarly taken aback.  With no place to stay, they invite Carlotta to stay at the house.  Soon, tensions erupt; Ismael is furious at Carlotta both for leaving and returning – she has not only ruined his life once, but twice.  Sylvia is also understandably upset; with Carlotta back in the picture, she fears that the once-missing wife will now try to reclaim what she feels is her rightful place.

Unable to take it any longer, Sylvia leaves, deciding to instead completely throw herself into her work as an astrophysicist in order to forget the terrible experience she was forced to endure.  With Sylvia out of the way, Carlotta seizes this opportunity to get Ismael back.  In his mind, Carlotta is no more; he no longer considers her his wife.  He returns to Paris to work on his film, advising Carlotta to mend fences with Henri.  But with all of this turbulence in his life, Ismael can’t concentrate on his film.  When his producer discovers the problem is that Ismael misses Sylvia, can he somehow find a way to reconcile them so that Ismael can finish the film?      


Some French films are more French than others and “Ismael’s Ghosts” is very French – but it also feels very Hitchcockian as well in some ways.  The mystery behind why Carlotta left and why she returned gets solved assuming you believe her explanations – as an audience, we are forced to take them at face value because there’s no evidence otherwise.  Whether or not you buy into the reasons is almost irrelevant because the story seems more concerned about how well or badly an artist deals with diversions resulting from tumultuous experiences in his life while he tries desperately to focus on creating his work.  

One criticism is that the movie feels as though it derails a bit early in the third act, after Sylvia leaves and Ismael returns to Paris.  Viewing this portion of “Ismael’s Ghosts”, one gets the sense as though both Ismael and the motion picture itself have gone rather insane because both appear scattered all over the place and the film seems to lose its narrative thread.  It takes quite some time before the picture appears to get back on track again.  Thankfully, once the character and the work itself return to its senses, it wraps up with a very endearing and satisfying resolution that ultimately rewards the audience after an unsettling experience. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Desplechin and Mathieu Amalric.  For Desplechin, “Ismael’s Ghosts” is a story about people’s last chances in life.  He further concedes that this is something of a roman à clef  in the sense that a part of him really does want to get out of the filmmaking profession at some point.  Desplechin says he made very deliberate choices in terms of the music used in “Ismael’s Ghosts”; the music changes stylistically depending on whose story is being told at any given moment.  (Particularly amusing was Cotillard’s character dancing to an old Bob Dylan recording)    

Ismael's Ghosts (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“Lady Bird”– Movie Review


This past weekend at The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended a screening of the new comedy “Lady Bird”, written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan.


Facing high school graduation, can a young woman resolve the conflicts with her mother before going off to college?


In the Spring of 2002, the hideous memories of the events from September 11th of the previous year are still fresh in everyone’s mind – even for those who live 3,000 miles away in Sacramento, California.  That includes Christine (Ronan) and her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts), a working class family who struggle to scrape by month to month; Christine’s father Larry works as a computer programmer and her mother Marion is a nurse. While Larry and Marion focus on paying their family’s bills, Christine – who prefers to be called Lady Bird – is consumed with her future, which she hopes will be as an actress on the Broadway stage in New York City. 

Until that day comes, however, Lady Bird will do what your average high school senior in her situation would do – spend time with her friends, date young men and maybe even appear in a school play or two.  As far as her romantic life is concerned, she is a very sexually inexperienced girl; nothing would please Lady Bird more than to lose her virginity before starting college, but it would have to be with the right person.  Lady Bird believes that she has found just that young man in the form of Danny (Lucas Hedges), a fellow actor in one of her school plays – but after dating for a while, she suddenly learns that Danny is gay, so her hopes are dashed (for now, anyway). 

In the meantime, Lady Bird has her hands full at home.  It seems that she and Marion are always engaged in one long continuous fight.  Is one of them envious of the other or do they feel as though they are in competition with each other?  Both could be true.  Complicating matters is the fact that Lady Bird has made it known that the colleges to which she has applied are all out of town – mostly in the east and especially in New York.  This only serves to further upset Marion, partly because she knows deep down that she would miss her daughter, partly because she fears for her safety in New York and partly because of the expense – which becomes of particular concern when Larry loses his job.  As the two battle up to the bitter end, will Lady Bird be able to patch up things with her mother before leaving for college?


With “Lady Bird”, Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut – and she’s off to a fine start.  This is a good first step for a woman who is clearly (and unsurprisingly) multi-talented.  “Lady Bird” is a safe choice for a rookie director in that it is short, comedic and semi-autobiographical; Gerwig was smart to not try to be overly ambitious her first time out.  Perhaps later in her development as a director, she will attempt something a bit more challenging.  But for now, she has made some good shot choices and served both her cast and script well.  Whatever she does next should be a real doozy.   

Saoirse Ronan is playing a vastly different character than she did in “Brooklyn”, which appeared at this festival two years ago – but a character that is nonetheless just as charming and adorable.  The difference here is that her Christine is also bratty and self-centered.  At 23, Ronan’s youthful looks allow her the opportunity to  get away with playing a 17 year old girl, but she makes it believable. Ronan and Gerwig are both making the most of their opportunities and their talent, so it is especially exciting to see these two women team up on a movie.      

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Gerwig and some of the cast.  Originally, Gerwig wrote this screenplay back in 2013; the first draft wound up something like 300 pages in length.  When Gerwig picked it up again, she was able to substantially pare it down.  The original title was “Mothers & Daughters”, which makes sense, since Gerwig characterizes this as a mother-daughter love story.  As a director, Gerwig says that she tries to keep a “magic bubble” around the actors, allowing them to be independent without a feeling that they constantly have to check-in with the director regarding their acting choices.    

Lady Bird (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

“Let the Sunshine In”– Movie Review


This past weekend, I attended a screening at The 55th New York Film Festival for the North American Premiere of the new comedy, “Let The Sunshine In” (AKA, “Bright Sunshine In” or its original French title, “Un beau soleil intérieur”), directed by Claire Denis and starring Juliette Binoche.  


Can a middle-aged divorced mother find true love despite all of the unworthy men she encounters?


Following her divorce, Isabelle (Binoche) finds that without being in a romantic entanglement with a man is an empty existence indeed.  In order to fix this, she starts sleeping with a number of men in the hope that one of them frogs will emerge as her prince if she kisses them enough.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, each one of these men are profoundly imperfect.  Some are married, some are emotionally distant and others are far too involved in their career to be capable of giving love to another person.  None of this prevents Isabelle from repeatedly bedding them, however.   

This does not get in the way of Isabelle either caring for her daughter or negatively impacting her work as an artist; she shares custody of her daughter with her ex-husband (with whom she occasionally has a bit of a fling) and her internal conflict seems to prove an inspiration for her work.  Nevertheless, she still sees a man who steadfastly refuses to leave his wife (Xavier Beauvois) and a self-absorbed actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who is also cheating on his spouse among sundry others who give the impression that they are equally unworthy of this woman’s charms. 

Finally, and in an act of total desperation, Isabelle decides to start seeing a fortune teller (Gérard Depardieu).  Unknown to Isabelle, this man has recently ended a relationship of his own and suddenly finds himself single, but now with a most attractive woman as a client.  When Isabelle informs him of her predicament, he may be seeing it as an opportunity for himself.  Revealing the potential future she may have with various men, he describes them in most unflattering ways.  Is he trying to seduce Isabelle or is she trying to seduce him?


In 1818, poet John Keats wrote “Endymion”, which begins with the line, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever".  Keats could have been talking about either Claire Denis’ “Let The Sunshine In” or its star, Juliette Binoche.  Both are things of beauty and a joy forever – although, perhaps for different reasons.  Binoche has never been sexier or funnier than she is as Isabelle and Denis’ light touch makes you feel as though you’re savoring the most exquisite soufflé that’s ever crossed your palate. The director’s passion for this work is only exceeded by Isabelle’s passion for life’s sensual delights.    

Both the movie and Binoche’s portrayal of Isabelle are deliciously sexy and naughty.  “Let The Sunshine In” and Binoche’s performance will leave you almost feeling deliriously intoxicated.  Binoche’s character is sexually ferocious without crossing the line into nymphomania.  While funny, there’s also a touch of sadness to it because ultimately, this woman is unhappy as she is unable to feel and reciprocate true love.  It’s less about sex than a deeper connection; this is an insanely beautiful woman, so she obviously has no problem getting sex whenever she wants  You root for her but you see her as deeply flawed in certain ways, which may have much to do with her inability to find love. 

To say that “Let The Sunshine In” is a romantic comedy would trivialize it a bit; it’s more accurate to characterize it as an updated Fench bedroom farce, but what makes it all the more refreshing is that it is from a strictly distaff perspective (not only is there a female star, but it also was directed by a woman, who collaborated on the screenplay with yet another woman).  This likely also keeps the movie from being tawdry but gritty enough to keep it from being twee.

“Let The Sunshine In” seems to be saying that we are never truly satisfied in our romantic relationships because no one can ever live up to our unrealistically high expectations of them.   Isabelle appears to be a manipulator just as much as she is manipulated herself by the men with whom she associates.  She is in love with the concept of love but not necessarily so fond of long-term commitment.  Perhaps she is the victim of her own artistic quirks. 

This movie is truly a gem and a must-see.  An extremely minor criticism is that its end titles are a bit distracting because they start rolling before the film is over – as a result, if you’re watching a subtitled version (as was this screening), it’s hard to keep up with the dialog while reading the credits.   

Let the Sun Shine In (2017) on IMDb

Monday, October 09, 2017

“Wonderstruck”– Movie Review


At the midpoint of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended The Centerpiece Screening of the new drama by Todd Haynes, “Wonderstruck”, starring Julianne Moore. 


When a Midwestern boy journeys to New York City to find his father, how will a similar quest by a little girl a half-century earlier wind up helping him?


In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) turned 12 years old; he resents his mother (Michelle Williams) because she’s very tight-lipped about his background – he’s never met his father and she won’t tell Ben the man’s name, where he lives or why he’s not around.  Shortly thereafter, Ben finds himself all alone in the world when his mother perishes from a car accident.  Snooping around his late mother’s bedroom, he finds something in her dresser drawer:  an old book that bears the title “Wonderstruck”.  Flipping the pages, he discovers a bookmark that appears to have the name of the bookstore where it may have been purchased, along with its Manhattan address and telephone number.   

Excited by this revelation, Ben decides to call the number on the bookmark – as it turns out, a fateful choice.  Just as Ben goes on the phone, a violent storm is erupts; a bolt of lightning strikes a telephone pole and the electrical charge travels down the wire and into the phone, hitting Ben and rendering him unconscious.  Later, he awakens in the hospital to learn that he is now deaf.  Undaunted by this setback, Ben flees the hospital and takes both the book and bookmark onto a bus from his home in Gunflint, Minnesota to New York City where he proceeds to try to find the bookstore. 

Fifty years prior, a little girl the same age as Ben had a similar experience.  Growing up  in Hoboken, New Jersey, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) is facing many hardships, not the least of which being that she is deaf like Ben – but unlike him, she was born that way.  Feeling lonely without her parents around, Rose runs off by herself to New York City to see if she can find her mother Lillian (Moore), a famous actress now starring in a play on Broadway.  But destiny takes over and Ben soon learns that Rose’s search magically converges with his own, although separated by decades.  Will Ben be able to unlock the mystery behind this girl and finally find his father?     


Whether or not you will in fact find yourself wonderstruck by “Wonderstruck” may largely depend on some factors, such as to what degree you may be able to suspend your disbelief and also to what extent you are able to follow the story.  For many years now, Todd Haynes has reminded us what an incredibly gifted filmmaker he is (at this festival two years ago, his “Carol” was shown).  “Wonderstruck” has a somewhat complicated narrative, in some ways better suited to the popular novel on which it was based (author Brian Selznick also wrote the adaptation for the screen); making it into a film is an ambitious undertaking. 

With respect to the suspension of disbelief, there is a strong argument to be made that “Wonderstruck” is something of a fable; perhaps it’s better to regard it as being closer to a fairy tale than a serious drama based in some semblance of reality.  Looking at it in this fashion, one may be more forgiving when it comes to certain contrivances in the story.  As far as following the story is concerned, that may be another matter altogether.  Interestingly, the problem does not come so much with the intercutting between 1927 and 1977 scenes as it does with the clarity within each story’s individual narrative.  Curiously, Haynes shot the 1927 scenes in black and white and without sound, as if it was a silent film of that era.  

Is “Wonderstruck” for adults or children or both?  Some of the above observations may be considered caviling because this is not a bad film; it’s generally quite good, but not without some obvious flaws.  The argument in favor of seeing this movie would be that it is a good conversation starter; exactly what that conversation would be might depend on the the other party.  If you have a friend or family member (either child or adult) who is hearing impaired, “Wonderstruck” takes you into their world and it might be of use to get their reaction (the screening on this evening was open caption, so no special devices were needed to read the on-screen subtitles).  On the other hand, this might be a good motion picture for a child to see; its underlying message is about the value of family and how we better understand ourselves when we understand our parents.        

Wonderstruck (2017) on IMDb

Saturday, October 07, 2017

“Spielberg”– Movie Review


This week at The 55th New York Film Festival, I caught the World Premiere of the new documentary, “Spielberg”.


A documentary that analyzes how the legendary director’s personal life influenced his professional work. 


As a child, Steven Spielberg was something of a loner.  Growing up in Arizona, he didn’t have many friends.  He did, however, have an astounding ability to internalize exactly what made a good movie from the standpoint of visual storytelling as well as the ability to execute that that in the films he would make in his youth.  Exactly how he figured out how to do this isn’t clear – it can only be explained that it is simply a part of what makes the man a genius filmmaker.  While these movies might look primitive on the surface, considering that a boy who was yet to take his first filmmaking class figured out how to simulate special effects is something of a marvel. 

Spielberg grew up with two sisters, who wound up appearing in some of his childhood films, albeit not always voluntarily.  What he tried to do in his movies then was not only to scare his sisters but also scare himself as well; he grew up feeling always afraid as a kid as he was extensively bullied in school.  Even the filmmaker admits that he never went into therapy precisely because filmmaking was his therapy – he worked out all of his personal demons by making a movie about them.  This explains why he would multitask, editing one film while reading a script for his next. 

In the end, Spielberg remains completely unapologetic about the brazen sentimentality in his films.  If the critics say his movies lack certain artistic qualities and that his work is not intellectual enough, let them.  All he cares about is telling a great story in a compelling fashion.  As a teenager, Spielberg saw “Lawrence Of Arabia” in a theater where it was shown in 70mm; he felt that the film was so majestic, he should abandon his dream of becoming a filmmaker because he would never be able to do anything as good as – much less better than – that movie.  But subsequent viewings of the film turned him around – the motion picture became his greatest inspiration.   


At two and a half hours in length, “Spielberg” is nearly twice as long as most documentaries.  This might be explained by the fact that its subject has a rather long career with an extensive body of work and that he has also had a significant impact on our popular culture internationally, but especially in America.  That might explain it, but it’s no justification.  In terms of informational nutrition, this documentary is filled with nothing but empty calories because there’s not much new or revelatory information in its content; while the director himself is worthy of a documentary, the documentary is not worthy of its length.   

It is your typical documentary, filled with talking heads (including Spielberg himself as well as the cast and crew who’ve worked with him over the years), padded with clips from his films and occasional excerpts from home movies.  If you are a casual movie fan or a casual fan of Spielberg, you might find some of the information interesting but if you have read or seen interviews of him over the years, there’s nothing new here.  On the other hand, only a hardcore Spielberg aficionado or movie buff, then you might find the length less objectionable because it apparently is attempting a deep dive. 

One thing that’s somewhat puzzling about this documentary is the omission of the fact that Spielberg had Jerry Lewis as a filmmaking teacher at The University of Southern California.  Why was Jerry Lewis not interviewed for this film?  Was he asked and he declined?  If so, that would have been interesting to include in the story.  Was he never asked in the first place?  Why was Spielberg not asked about Jerry Lewis in the final form of this documentary?  This was a reasonably well-known fact (among some of the others in the motion picture) and sadly, its absence is the only thing remarkable about this documentary. 

Spielberg (2017) on IMDb

Monday, October 02, 2017

“The Meyerowitz Stories” – Movie Review


On the first weekend of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the North American Premiere of the new Noah Baumbach comedy-drama, “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)”, starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman.


As an elderly father nears his final days, will he be able to resolve issues with his adult children – and can they resolve the issues they have with each other? 


In his prime, Harold Meyerowitz (Hoffman) was once considered an influential sculptor by critics, colleagues and his students alike.  He does not share their opinion of him; focusing on his career, he was not very successful in his personal life.  Harold has married several times with adult offspring from different wives – Danny (Sandler), Matt (Stiller) and Jean (Elizabeth Marvel).  His current wife, Maureen (Emma Thompson), is a bit eccentric, to put it mildly; although she provides Harold with companionship, she’s struggling to stay sober as she feels like something of an outsider in this family. 

Making Harold feeling even more distraught is the fact that one of his contemporaries, L.J. Shapiro (Judd Hirsch), has his own career resurrected when he’s suddenly finding great fame late in life.  Harold attends a showing of Shapiro’s work at a gallery and becomes so resentful, he abruptly leaves, envious and embarrassed.  Meanwhile, he is forced to deal with Danny’s issues; separated from his wife, Danny’s seeing his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) off to college.  A failed musician, Danny is struggling to get by financially and Eliza’s college is yet another burden.

Visiting from California, Matt, a financial advisor, tries to convince Harold to sell his home and move into a less expensive place.  Matt’s half-brother Danny objects because he wants his father to spend his remaining time in a familiar space.  This causes the resentment the half-brothers harbored for decades to come to the forefront.  Sharing a father but coming from different mothers, they felt that they had to compete for Harold’s love and attention.  While the debate over selling the house rages on, Harold is hospitalized due to a brain injury he incurred after a fall.  Not knowing whether or not Harold will pull through, will his three children be able to resolve their outstanding issues with their father?  For that matter, can they put their own differences aside as well?


Baumbach’s latest explores a considerable amount of familiar territory; this is probably good news for his fans and perhaps something of a disappointment for those who are less enthusiastic when it comes to this filmmaker’s body of work.  Not that revisiting themes we’re accustomed to seeing from a director is necessarily a bad thing – as long as it’s done well, at at any rate.  Familial conflict has typically been Baumbach’s métier, so he cannot be blamed for returning to the well, especially if that’s what drives him creatively.  For those familiar with his earlier work, “The Meyerowitz Stories” almost could be considered a sequel to “The Squid And The Whale”.  However, despite the series of interesting tales, its ending is something of a letdown. 

Where “The Meyerowitz Stories” diverges from “The Squid And The Whale” is with its underlying theme on the nature of success.  Success, the movie seems to say, is both personal and subjective; what determines defining something as a success will vary individually, depending on context – it’s all relative.  Harold, despite how others view him, feels he has been unsuccessful.  Danny never followed through on his musical studies, so he believes himself to be a failure.  Matt didn’t pursue a career in the arts, so regardless of his income, thinks he is not a success in his father’s eyes.     

What makes “The Meyerowitz Stories” worth seeing is its stellar cast; this is truly a remarkable ensemble performance all around – and yes, that even includes Adam Sandler.  But while the story centers on the sibling rivalry between Sandler’s character and Stiller’s, the performance worth viewing is that of Dustin Hoffman; his nuanced portrayal as the father shows he’s still got plenty in the tank.  He plays an artist who never really understood how aloof he was with his wives or children and lacks the introspection to acknowledge his behavior.

Following the screening was a question and answer session with the cast, writer/director and composer Randy Newman, who wrote the soundtrack.  Perhaps the most incisive and salient observations about “The Meyerowitz Stories” were made by Hoffman himself, who noted that while the film is heavily stylized, it is so subtle that it can be easy to miss.  He found the pacing of the movie noteworthy given the fact that it clocks in at under two hours although the script was 170 pages.  Another good comment he made was about Newman’s soundtrack; the music is that of Newman solo on the piano, giving a sad and lonely sound appropriate to the characters in the movie.  

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) on IMDb

Saturday, September 30, 2017

“Mrs. Hyde”– Movie Review


This week at The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the North American Premiere of the comedy-drama, “Mrs. Hyde”, starring Isabelle Huppert. 


When a high school science teacher suffers an accident which gives her unusual powers, will she be able to control her newfound abilities or will they control her?


Marie Géquil (Huppert) is hated by her students and her colleagues do not seem to hold her in very high esteem either.  As a science teacher at a suburban technical high school, her class treats her with derision.  It seems this woman is far too timid to be taken seriously.  But while teaching is her career, science is her passion; as such, she maintains her own lab on school grounds where she can perform her own experiments in order to better teach her class.  One day in her laboratory, an accident happens where she is apparently electrocuted during a storm.   This permanently transforms her life.

Although neither her husband nor her co-workers notice any change initially, Mrs. Géquil certainly does – and adapting to it is far from easy for her.  As it turns out, she has been imbued with some kind of power – an electrical power, to be precise – which is difficult for her to control, even after she becomes aware that it is now in her possession.  But there is yet another transformation that takes place in Mrs. Géquil and that has to do with her personality.  It seems that she has become more confident, less fearful of her students – and that leads to classes where these young men and women are increasingly engaged and as a result are learning more. 

Mrs. Géquil begins mentoring one of her students – Mallik, a handicapped teenager who just wants to fit in with the other kids, but because of his disability, they are not quite so accepting of him.  Géquil recognizes Mallik is both willing and able to learn, so she conducts extracurricular sessions with him in order to assist the young man with his studies.  But just as Mallik starts to excel in his education, so does  Mrs. Géquil change in her behavior; overnight, her electrical powers transform her into a murderer and when she tries to make Mallik one of her victims, will she succeed or can the police stop her before Mallik loses his life?           


When a director has to explain his movie to a group of people who have just screened it, that does not speak well of the work.  Nevertheless, that is precisely what happened after the showing of “Mrs. Hyde” – but more on that later.   This is something of an oddball film in the sense that it is neither entirely a comedy nor something that fits easily into a horror/science fiction genre.  Also, it is clearly not a strict adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic novel, “The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” – although that is admittedly what inspired this version of the story. 

In this updated distaff reboot, Mrs. Géquil (Jekyll) is a science teacher in the modern day, who instructs a class of woebegone students who may have some degree of potential.  Here, however, we have more sympathy with her than terror, despite her hideous deeds.  It is obvious that she is not in complete control, despite the actions of the character.  Much like Linda Blair’s portrayal in “The Exorcist”, you root for the defeat of the demon which possesses her rather than rooting against the character herself; that being the case, however, the deaths that occur seem more incidental than intentional. 

Following the screening was a question and answer session with director/writer Serge Bozon and star Isabelle Huppert, as mentioned above.  Since Bozon ate up much of the time clarifying his story for the audience, Huppert, unfortunately, did not get much of an opportunity to answer questions.  She did, however, share that this role was a great challenge for her because it was difficult for her to memorize her lines; since her character is a science teacher and she has precious little knowledge of the subject, much of the technical language was hard to internalize. 

Madame Hyde (2017) on IMDb


Friday, September 29, 2017

“Last Flag Flying”– Movie Review


On the opening night of The 55th New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of director Richard Linklater’s new comedy-drama, “Last Flag Flying”, starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. 


When a trio of Vietnam War veterans reunite to help bury one of their sons, will they be able to resolve a dark secret from their shared past?


In 2003, America finds itself in the incipient days of The Iraq War.  It is at this point that Doc (Carell), decides to look up Sal (Cranston), an old buddy of his from decades ago – Doc and Sal both served together in the military during The Vietnam War.  Doc convinces Sal to leave the bar he now owns so they can meet up with the final member of their troika, Mueller (Fishburne), who used to lead them in their long-gone days of raising hell.  Sal is chagrined to learn that the wild man he once knew Mueller to be is now a minister well regarded by his congregation.  

Over a meal at Mueller’s house, Doc reveals the reason for this sudden reunion:  his son, a Marine, just died while serving in Iraq.  As a recent widower, finds he cannot bury his son by himself, so he calls upon the two friends from his youth to provide him with the emotional support he so desperately needs.  While Sal is willing to help, Mueller is extremely reluctant.  Finally, at his wife’s urging, Mueller agrees to join them.  Although Doc’s son will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery with other military heroes, they must first venture to The Dover Air Force Base to receive the body. 

While there, the trio learn the real way in which Doc’s son perished.  Upon hearing this, Doc now feels he should not be interred at Arlington; instead, he wants to take his boy back to his home in New Hampshire and have him laid to rest there.  With this, the men travel with the body via train to Doc’s home.  Along the way, they find compelled to revisit a period from their time in the military which they’d prefer to forget because it resulted in the death of one of their military brothers.  Decades later, can this triumvirate find a way to right an old wrong so they can bury Doc’s son with a clear conscience?   


It is likely that most professional film critics will fall all over themselves gushing over “Last Flag Flying” in their review.  There are many reasons for this:  for one thing, they see this as a serious contender for awards and they don’t want to miss the boat calling this one.  For another thing, it is an anti-war movie, so they will feel obligated to throw their support behind it for fear of not appearing politically correct.  Also, there is the matter of the names associated here:  director Linklater (whose “Boyhood” from a few years ago earned many nominations) and the stars – Carell, Cranston and Fishburne – who are among the finest in this country. 

Keeping all of that in mind, perhaps it is now time to tell The Emperor he’s not wearing any clothes.  “Last Flag Flying” is based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater.  The big screen adaptation is rather lacking in dramatic impact, although reading its original narrative version may have resulted in a more emotional effect.  This is one of those buddy road movies where the buddies don’t always like each other, which is what generates some of the comic moments; it has been unfairly but inevitably compared to the old Jack Nicholson film, “The Last Detail”.  While “The Last Detail” is really something of a coming of age story, “Last Flag Flying” is more of a coming to terms story.     

As far as the performances are concerned, Carell and Fisburne are superb in their understated portrayals whereas Cranston, for all of his talent, really just appears to be chewing the scenery much of the time.  This acting choice was probably based on two factors:  first, his manic character is a stark contrast against the other two, which makes him stand out all the more.  Also, Sal is supposed to have a metal plate in his head, as the result of a war injury; taking this into consideration, it probably seemed acceptable to play the character as broadly as possible.   

Last Flag Flying (2017) on IMDb

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

“Battle Of The Sexes”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Battle Of The Sexes”, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. 


When The Women’s Liberation Movement comes to the forefront in American culture, can a top woman tennis player defeat a retired older male tennis player?


In 1973, The Women’s Liberation Movement was gaining steam throughout The United States.  Main among its causes was equal pay; women were not being compensated fairly in comparison to their male counterparts.  This was prevalent in all walks of life, including and especially in highly visible areas, such as professional sports.  At this time, Billie Jean King (Stone) was considered among the best female tennis players.  She becomes outraged when the older men who control the sport refuse to award prize money to the women that is equivalent to what the male players would win. 

Mrs. King retaliates by starting her own women’s tennis league, recruiting all of the best professional players; when it earns sponsorship from a cigarette targeted for women, they are then able to promise prize money that is commensurate with what the men would get.  As this group is forming, King meets Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), a hairdresser who awakens King to an aspect of her sexuality that had long since remained dormant.  This proves problematic to King not just because she’s already married, but also because if this information became public, it would ruin her career permanently.

Upon hearing of this women’s league, retired tennis player Bobby Riggs (Carell) is inspired.  Needing money to pay gambling debts – and seeking the limelight he once had during his days as a player – Riggs contacts King to suggest the two play each other to prove once and for all if men are better than women in tennis.  King rejects the notion, but Riggs convinces her main competitor Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) to agree.  Once Riggs beats Court, King quickly reconsiders.  Thanks in large part to Riggs’ skills as a master showman, the media rapidly latch on to this story; once it’s on everyone’s radar, it becomes the world’s most anticipated sporting event.  But will King succumb to the intense pressure or can she find a way to defeat the bloviating Riggs?    


What holds back “Battle Of The Sexes” most is its hackneyed screenplay.  Despite both main characters being humanized with their own personal struggles – Riggs with his gambling addiction and King with her sexuality – there is not enough that’s special about the way this story is told that draws in the viewer on an emotional level.  Once we see Riggs as a devoted father and as a husband whose finances challenges the patience of his wife, it is increasingly difficult to root against him.  True, it could be argued that his chauvinism alone is reason enough, but even that comes across as something of an act for this “show” he’s trying to put on.  It turns out that Riggs is not the villain in this story, it is instead tennis broadcaster and advocate Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) – and therein may lie another issue.  

King’s character should be easier to root for, but that’s not always the case.  It’s not that she comes across as a villain, it’s that some of the people whom she opposes aren't necessarily all that unlikeable.  For example, Margaret Court doesn’t appear as an unpleasant person, but King nevertheless dislikes her for reasons that seem to go beyond merely due to their professional rivalry.  Then there is the matter of King cheating on her husband Larry; while we feel for King’s inability to be more open about her lesbianism, we also feel for her husband, who (at least based on the movie) was faithful to his wife and crushed when he learned of her affair.

One of the bright spots in “Battle Of The Sexes” is the performance by Steve Carell; if you are old enough to remember the real Bobby Riggs, then it’s easy to see that Carell truly embodies this clownish buffoon.  Emma Stone’s performance as King is not quite so believable; although she’s a terrific actress, she may have been seriously miscast in this role.  While it may be difficult to think of a famous actress in that age range who could portray King more realistically, perhaps it may have been better to go with an unknown in this case.  Although King may have blown Riggs off the court in real life, it is Carell who blows Stone off the screen in this movie. 

Battle of the Sexes (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, September 14, 2017

“mother!”– Movie Review


This week, I attended the New York Premiere of the new horror picture, “mother!”, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. 


When a couple’s idyllic country residence is disrupted by intruders, can their relationship survive?


A young woman (Lawrence) has been furiously working for quite some time now on performing an extensive renovation of the decrepit rustic house that was once probably stately when originally constructed.  She shares the home with her husband (Bardem), a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block of late.  As she paints and plasters, the couple receive an unlikely visitor:  a sickly stranger (Ed Harris) who claims he was misinformed about their residence being a bed and breakfast.  Since it is late and The Stranger is clearly not well, The Husband invites him to stay the night, much to the chagrin of The Wife. 

The next day, The Stranger is joined by His Wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), a rude woman who commandeers the couple’s house.  The Stranger And His Wife wind up breaking a valuable heirloom belonging to The Husband; following a number of unpleasant encounters with the obnoxious pair, this is the last straw.  The Wife asks them both to leave.  Before they can go, The Stranger And His Wife are surprised by the arrival of their two grown sons; The Sons get into a physical altercation, resulting in one of them being seriously injured.  Following a brief hospitalization, he dies. 

The Husband and Wife now find their home invaded by many odd people – friends and family of The Stranger And His Wife, who have joined them to mourn the couple’s loss.  While there, things become chaotic when The Mourners turn the house topsy turvy, greatly upsetting The Wife, who is already angry at The Husband for allowing them entry.  After they leave and the damage is repaired, The Wife learns she’s pregnant, which causes The Husband to snap out of his writer’s block.  But when The Husband now becomes unbelievably famous and successful, anarchy returns to their household when they are besieged by selfish fans.  With The Fans now totally destroying the house and The Wife realizing The Husband can’t be bothered with stopping them, can she exact a revenge on all of them?  



As relentlessly jarring, infuriatingly disturbing and frequently confusing as “mother!” can be, it is a movie that offers an extremely unique experience.  Whether or not you find it to be a positive or a negative experience will in large part depend on how you feel about Aronofsky’s previous work.  It is stylistically consistent with his earlier films in the sense that it takes you into a dark and scary world from which you desperately want to escape but can’t.  Filmmakers such as Aronofsky and David Lynch have often – and accurately – been characterized as visionaries; in “mother!”, Aronofsky, for all of his unique visions, has never been more comparable to Lynch.

Unfortunately (but understandably), “mother!” will be inaccessible to many.  That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it does make it a complicated movie – which is Aronofsky’s specialty.  This is an allegory; consider it Aronofsky’s film about environmentalism – his own personal hue and cry about how mankind is ravaging the planet.  That’s precisely where the controversy will come; if you are a climate change denier, then it will be easy to write off this motion picture as sheer drivel.  If it’s possible to put politics aside and simply watch “mother!” for what it is, it can nevertheless be a mesmerizing adventure.

In promoting “mother!”, those connected with it have somewhat tipped off what the story is really about, and Aronofsky confirmed this prior to the screening when he introduced the movie.  He said that “[‘mother!’] is not about your mother or my mother, it’s about our mother”.  In other words, Mother Earth; as a Mother, JLaw’s character is the planet on which we all live and she rebels when we’ve taken advantage by mistreating her.  There is a price to pay for this, Aronofsky seems to be saying, and based on the film’s conclusion, it is a brutal one. 

As far as the screening itself, seeing it in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall made it all the more special.  If you are familiar with the glorious venue, you may know there is an organ downstage right of the proscenium arch; prior to the screening, an organist played for the audience.  As noted above, Aronofsky took the stage to introduce the movie; he was accompanied by its star, Jennifer Lawrence (whom, we are given to understand, is also his current bestie).  Following the screening was a live performance by Patti Smith; she sang the old hit “The End Of The World” (which apparently is heard over the closing credits); she followed this by reading the above prayer (which was distributed to attendees), then sang her own composition, “Pissing In A River” .        

Mother! (2017) on IMDb

Thursday, September 07, 2017

“Heretic”– Book Review


This summer, I read the political analysis, “Heretic:  Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.


As a self-described heretic and apostate, Ayaan Hirsi Ali long ago questioned the religion of Islam, in which she was raised.  Upon fleeing Islamic countries for The Netherlands, she received higher education in the more liberal Western culture and it was this that shaped her views that Islam was not only misogynistic, but also, doctrinaire as well.  In her writings, interviews and speeches opposing Islam, she has been met with many death threats.  Ultimately, she has arrived at the conclusion that the only way Islam can be fixed is by reformation – much in the same way as other major religions have undergone their own reformation over the ages. 

The author is of the belief that within Islam, there exists three types of Muslims:  The Medinas, The Meccas and The Modifiers.  She identifies herself as a Modifier – an apostate who cast doubts upon the religion in order for it to be reformed.  The Meccas – which is how the author was raised – are the peace-loving group that closely follows the rules of the religion.  The Medinas are the most problematic group because these are the ones who are the most violent and see the purpose of their religion as a political movement.  It is this group for which the book was written. 

Hirsi Ali then goes on to outline her own five-point plan of areas where Islam Reformation need to occur: 

  1. The Prophet Muhammad’s infallibility and the literal interpretations of The Qur’an
  2. The fact that life after death is valued much more than life before death
  3. Denunciation of Sharia Law
  4. Commanding “right” and forbidding “wrong” in order to enforce the religion  
  5. The importance of Jihad (holy war)


It is simply undeniable that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the author of “Heretic”, writes about her topic with passion, conviction and absolute sincerity.  Her wisdom borne out of a lifetime full of her own personal experience combined with impeccable research imbues this book with tremendous authenticity which makes this book worth reading.  Traversing from chapter to chapter, it’s nearly impossible to keep from nodding in agreement with just about everything this woman says because it all makes such perfect sense.  All of which makes the ending of the book so maddening.

The main problem with “Heretic” is the fact that it never explains either how or why this religion would ever seriously consider reformation.  Based on what we know and what we have seen from Islamic extremists, this appears to be totally against their nature; there is essentially nothing in the world that would motivate these people to consider reforming the religion, especially when you remember that these very same people want to live as though they are still in the 12th century (and also want everyone else to live that way).  It is this matter that seems a huge flaw in the logic behind this otherwise intrepid work.

If you are familiar with the background of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you know that this woman is far beyond merely courageous; in fact, calling her courageous almost seems like something of an insult.  Therefore, it is painful to say that her optimism – Hirsi Ali’s belief that this reformation has in fact already begun – is naïve and lacks sufficient foundation.  Does she truly believe this herself?  Or was she convinced by her editor that she needed to have some semblance of a “happy ending” in order to sell more copies of her book?  It would be nice to think that Hirsi Ali is far too smart to fall for that.  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

“The Trip To Spain”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, “The Trip To Spain” starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.


When two long-time friends take an excursion throughout Spain, will the troubles in their personal life ruin their fun?


Steve and Rob are hitting the road again – this time, to Spain.  Instead of going to all the major cities you might expect them to visit, Steve decides to literally take the road less travelled and check out some of the lesser-known locales.  The excuse this time?  The New York Times has hired Steve to do restaurant reviews and The Observer has asked Rob to do likewise.  However, Steve is planning to use this opportunity to start writing the book he’s been otherwise too distracted to write.  As might be expected from these two, the minute they set off on their getaway, both try to impress the other in how much they know about their destination.

Sensing they might be starting to get on each other’s nerves, they instead try to concentrate on the extraordinary food they’re experiencing at some of the best restaurants the country has to offer.  Along the way, they attempt to challenge each other with jokes and celebrity imitations; of course, they only wind up criticizing each other rather than simply allowing themselves to be amused by each other.  Only the fine meals they have appear to be what keeps them from breaking into fisticuffs.  By this point, it’s hard to believe that Steve actually invited Rob to accompany him.

When the two men are alone, they are forced to deal with the exigencies of real life.  With Steve, this means he’s lost his agent and the screenplay he’s been peddling is getting a polish by an inexperienced writer.  As if that isn’t bad enough, Steve’s girlfriend breaks up with him and his grown son, who was supposed to join him on the trip, bails out at the last minute.  For the happily married Rob, things are quite different; he’s being pursued by Steve’s ex-agent with promises of big Hollywood opportunities.  Growing increasingly homesick for his wife and children, Rob returns home.  Will Steve be able to resume his writing or will he be consumed by his own loneliness?


A “silliot” is someone who is both silly and an idiot; don’t bother looking up the word, it’s totally made up.  In the best way possible, however, both Coogan and Brydon are the biggest pair of silliots.  When they share the screen, they are entertaining, informative and most of all very funny.  No doubt about it, it seems like it would be a ton of fun to hang out with these two, whether at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain or a dive bar in Brooklyn.  At least that’s true for most of the movie’s two hours; in the end, it takes a dark and rather disturbing turn.  

Much of “Trip To Spain” is a sheer delight, only occasionally broken up by more serious scenes that serve as each character’s subplots:  namely, the professional and personal life of both men.  For Coogan, it seems as though everything is falling apart all at the time time, whereas for Brydon, things couldn’t possibly be any better, both regarding his home life and career.  These subplots – and the way they are handled – are a useful device; without them, people would eventually grow tired of these men, if not find them both irritating.  The subplots serve to humanize them.

That third act is unsettling.  When Brydon returns home to his family, Coogan is left to work on his book; it is at this point, we see him melancholy without his friend around to distract him from his troubles.  Although Coogan is supposed to be writing, his brooding overcomes him, causing him to be blocked.  Was this the same movie we were laughing at earlier?  It comes across as a bit schizophrenic.  Without giving away the actual ending, it does come across as both unexpected not to mention startling.  One wonders if this is the final installment in the series.

The Trip to Spain (2017) on IMDb

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

“Ingrid Goes West”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy-drama, “Ingrid Goes West” starring Aubrey Plaza (who also Produced) and Elizabeth Olsen. 


When a young woman stalks an internet celebrity, will they wind up being friends or will this celebrity find herself endangered?


Ingrid (Plaza) is a lonely and isolated young woman -- which has led to some rather disturbing behavior on her part.  Since her mother’s death after a long illness, she has been using various social media platforms as something of a crutch; having a dearth of real friends, she has been “friending” a considerable number of strangers on the Internet and “liking” their posts or photos in a rote fashion.  The problem comes when Ingrid reads way too much into these “relationships”, believing that these people are actually her friends.  This ultimately results in Ingrid having a mental breakdown and she is committed.  

Upon Ingrid’s discharge, she returns to her late mother’s house where she tries to figure out how to continue with the rest of her life.  One day, she’s struck with what she believes is a brilliant idea:  while reading a magazine article about Taylor Sloane (Olsen), a newly-minted Internet celebrity, she starts following her on Instagram; after considerable online interaction with her, Ingrid finally gets a response from Taylor.  It is at this point Ingrid believes she’s forming a real connection with this woman and makes a decision that will irrevocably alter both their lives:  she will move to Venice Beach, California, where Taylor lives. 

Taking the $60,000 in cash she inherited from her mother, Ingrid rents an apartment from Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), an aspiring screenwriter and Batman aficionado.  After finding out where Taylor lives, she uses some rather extraordinary and duplicitous means to meet and then befriend Taylor and her boyfriend Ezra (Wyatt Russell).  At the outset, they appear to be turning into the very best of buddies, at least until Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) shows up; no model of stability himself, Nicky learns of Ingrid’s obsession with his sister and coerces her to keep him from revealing it to Taylor.  Ingrid’s reaction to this is to have Dan beat up Nicky.  When Taylor finds out what happened, she informs Ingrid their friendship is over.  Following a major meltdown, can Ingrid win back Taylor or will she have to find a way to move on without her?


After screening “Ingrid Goes West”, one thing remains abundantly clear:  Aubrey Plaza can really play crazy … maybe a little too well … This movie has many laugh-out-loud moments, but it takes a sharp and very dark turn late in the story; despite this, the filmmakers are able to resurrect the humorous elements and the jokes eventually return.  Screenwriters Matt Spicer (who also directed) and David Branson Smith have concocted a very sagacious and unique script that hits the bullseye on cultural commentary in this era of social media – and more specifically, peoples’ obsession with social media. 

Curiously, this is a movie that may have a protagonist, but it lacks a hero; while it is obviously Ingrid’s story, this character is hardly heroic.  In fact, none of the characters in “Ingrid Goes West” are particularly likeable; Dan Pinto may come the closest, but given the fact that he deals coke on the side even he’s pretty shady.  Normally, all of this would result in an unwatchable film, but once again, the savior here is the comedy.  The relentless stream of jokes make this an eminently watchable motion picture.  You find yourself in a world that is simultaneously hilarious and frightening. 

If there is a criticism about this movie, it would be with respect to its ending.  Without giving away too much, the story’s resolution seems to suggest that Ingrid’s egregious behavior may have been rewarded.  This is dangerous as it could potentially be used as inspiration for further inappropriateness online (as if this society hasn’t seen enough already).  The motion picture apparently wants us to believe that its protagonist has suffered enough and as a result is now worthy of redemption.  Whether or not she is in fact worthy may depend on how you view her previous misdeeds.     

Following the screening, there was an interview with Plaza, Olsen and writer-director Matt Spicer.  Instead of attempting to summarize the discussion, a video of the conversation has been posted below (caution – it’s a half hour in length); the trailer for “Ingrid Goes West” is just beneath. 

Ingrid Goes West (2017) on IMDb